Survivor Stories

The following are stories from the survivors of the Sept. 11th attacks nine years ago.

Read them and remember - remember the lives that were lost, the heroes that were born, and the impact it had and still has on America.

Perspective: September 11
The account of Adam Oestreich, a Merrill Lynch employee at the World Financial Center.

I was at work when the two planes hit the Towers yesterday. My office, 2 World Financial Center, is/was on the 24th floor and faced the Towers from across West Street (the west side highway). I was at my desk when the first plane hit. We shook a bit in our seats but didn't know what happened.

I ran to the window and looked down; I thought it was a car bomb (like in 1993). I saw a parking lot that had a variety of things on fire. People started screaming about the tower (this was about 45 seconds after impact).

I ran to the other side of my office and saw fire raining down. Parts of the building was falling and on fire along with paper and other things. We had to look way up because the plane hit in the higher floors. The impact hole was huge -- it looked like 10 stories were burning. The fire seemed to crawl around the tower. The winds were so high it caused the smoke to spin in a large swirl.

It is hard to describe how the building looked from my angle. You just couldn't believe what you were seeing. At that point we didn't know exactly what happened. About a minute after the crash was reported by the news our phone started ringing. Everyone called their wives, husbands, and friends and said: "Did you see what happened?!?" "No, it wasn't us." "Yes, we know people."

I was walking around the desks at my office when the other plane hit. It felt like a big earthquake. I stumbled with the hit. People started yelling. One man in my office saw the plane go in and screamed it was another plane.

We ran again to the window. This time it was much lower in the tower and seemed worse than the first because it was so much closer to my office. People on the street could feel the fireball. My manager started yelling -- "Everybody get out! Everyone get out NOW!"

I grabbed my bag, palm pilot and my juice and headed for the stairs. 24 floors isn't that bad; they were full of people. Some were very upset, a few were panicky. We got to the winter garden (lobby) and headed out to South End Street (parallel to the river). I walked out and just saw a crowd staring up at the burning Towers. It was surreal this is the only word that can be used to amply describe the scene.

I stood there for a minute and watched the fire climb up, down and around the towers. I heard sudden cries from the crowd and looked up and saw people falling/jumping to their deaths. And I wish I could say there was only one. It got worse as the fire spread.

I then moved next to the marina and watched a bit more. Trying to call anyone proved almost impossible. I left messages for my immediate family and lent my phone to two guys who had to call their wives. I then started walking up the West side highway with the rest of the refugees. And I mean refugees. People carrying odd stuff crying, shaking and in total shock. I could only find 4 people from my office. Fortunately all were OK, but every got separated when we headed for the exits.

I then came upon a guy with a telescope aimed at one of the towers. The picture I will never forget. At about the 60-70th floors, people were hanging out windows trying to get air. Literally holding onto the side of the building waving a T-shirt to try to get someone's attention. I couldn't watch any longer. I kept walking, and about 10 minutes later I was about a half mile away and was talking with someone and we heard this sound that can only be described as a "thundering crack." That is the best I can do. I then saw what I thought was just a chunk of the WTC but it was actually the whole tower. I said it wasn't ... I couldn't believe it ...

With the first collapse people started running from the wall of smoke, dust and ash that erupted. The running wasn't very panicked, which helped. I then went to a car on the side of the road with about 15 other New Yorkers -- it was a true melting pot: a punk, few suits, office men and women, odd workers, truck driver, secretaries etc. That is when I learned about the Pentagon and the hijacking. Walking home I heard that "crack" again. I ran to corner to catch the second plume of smoke and debris from the second tower collapsing.

I stood there for a while in utter shock and disbelief. Then I took the long walk home. The city was closed. The streets were crowded with people and emergency vehicles and that was it.

After walking home, I ended up rollerblading from my apartment up to my parents' place (about 5 miles). It was so quiet -- thousands of people were just walking home from everywhere, the silence was deafening. I even tried to give blood at four different locations, but they were overloaded with volunteers.

One of the hardest parts was trying to call people. Both land and cell lines were overloaded and failing. By today (12th) I was able to get in contact with most people. I finally gave blood -- it took 5.5 hours.

As of now, my office building is still standing, but I believe our windows were blown out and the office heavily damaged by debris from the collapse.


Email From a Witness
A personal email is shared from a friend to a friend, assuring he's alright and tells of what he witnessed.

Dear All,

By now you have all heard of the terrible tragedy that has befallen New York City and the United States. I thought I would take a moment to write to you and bring you a first person perspective on the attacks.

First things first, I am fine. I was nowhere near the attack when it took place. In fact, I was actually safely asleep in my bed when the first plane struck the World Trade Center (WTC).

My alarm clock went off with news radio informing me that a “small plane” had crashed into the WTC. I wasn’t very awake and it didn’t register with me, but a few minutes later when I heard that a second plane had hit, I jumped out of bed to turn on the television. My instinct told me something terrible had happened and this was confirmed when I saw the television footage of black smoke coming from the towers. The reporter said “play the tape back” and that is when I saw the plane crash into the tower.

When I got to my office, I noticed people coming out of the building rather than going up. I decided to head up to the office to use the phones and find out more about what happened. I found ten messages from friends and colleagues around the world, and I struggled to find out more information about what was going on. As I walked into my office, my secretary hastily ran past me saying “I’m outta here.”

A colleague came rushing in to tell me that the WTC was now gone. This hit me really hard, and I felt that something so familiar just couldn’t be destroyed. I had just visited the WTC on Sunday, and it was something I saw nearly everyday. I decided to leave my office in midtown and walk home.

When I saw the news that passenger airlines had been used in the attacks, it made me sick to think of the innocent civilians who were doing nothing more than crossing the country on an airplane ride. It was a truly beautiful day in New York, and no one started this day thinking it would end in tragedy.

I watched with shock, anger and horror as the news reports showed people jumping out of the WTC to escape the flames. These were bond traders and lawyers and janitors and waiters—not exactly military targets.

Before I knew it, it was 10:00 PM and I went out for a walk. Nothing was open where I lived (just a few blocks from Times Square). I ended up going home and eating cereal, which would be the only thing I ate for the next 48 hours.

The first day was a shock about the loss of two buildings and the crash of some airplanes, but by the second day the stories of survivors and the missing started to appear. I grew sadder and sadder as I heard the stories of the loved ones looking for the husbands, wives, fathers, sons… There were firms in the building that I did business with, there was a former colleague that worked there and is now missing. There were stories of people leaping to their deaths, and firemen struggling to save lives while people were dying all around.

The next few days were very stressful, more stressful than anything I'd ever been through. Suddenly every problem in my life became insignificant, and my heart was with the victims and the ones left behind. I found myself waking up early in the morning in a panic of helplessness and sadness, the reality of the previous evening coming back with a crushing weight. I felt myself becoming more and more of a New Yorker as the city bound together to combat this attack.

On Friday, I went to pay our respects to the fire stations that are near my house. At the first station, I lit two candles and left some flowers for the men of Engine 54, Ladder 4 just around the corner at 48th and 8th Avenue. Every night I sleep, these firemen would wake me up with the sirens as they drove past my house. Tonight, it was rather silent at the station.

This station lost 15 firemen and their ladder truck, which was destroyed in the blast. Because the attack took place around 9:00 AM in the morning, the fire departments were “changing shifts.” Thus, most stations had double the number of firemen and they all overloaded the fire trucks on the way down to the WTC. A huge pile of flowers and candles covered the driveway, and pictures drawn by local children covered the walls with words like “thank you for being brave” and one having a picture showing a fireman catching the people jumping out of the building. One showed a policemen and a firemen standing tall over the city, with the caption “The Twin Towers of the City” referring to the firemen’s and policemen’s bravery and courage.

One sad note at this station was the orphaned son of a fireman. He was a little boy about five sitting on the bumper of the remaining Engine who told people “my father likes to save people.” Unfortunately, his father has not returned.

I then went to see the men of Engine Co. 23, about two blocks north of my house. This Engine was also lost, and an old rusting 1970’s fire truck was in the station to fill in the gaps. Six men from this station were lost in the tragedy, and we left more flowers and candles with the firemen (from Boston) who were manning this station.

My next stop was the Family Service Center at the New York National Guard armory. This was horrible. All around the building were quickly made “missing” signs, with photos and information about people lost in the WTC. Family members were holding pictures and begging anyone they could find for information about their lost relatives. Some of the pictures were funny—one even showed an elderly man standing next to an elephant. I guess it was the best picture they had of him, but it also helped people remember his name. Others photos were tragic, with a picture of fathers and mothers holding their children. I also noticed one Chinese woman holding her baby, walking around with an anguished face as she handed out fliers of her husband’s picture. It was so sad to see this young child who would grow up without their father.

The pictures scared me, because they looked like everyone. There were fat and thin, pretty and ugly, black, white, Chinese, Hispanic, middle class, educated, upper class. There were janitors and lawyers. People from all over the world, as the WTC crash affected many people from many countries. One photo showed a brother and sister who were missing, another had a husband and wife. For each person missing, there are dozens of loved ones who have broken hearts, and some children that will never know their parents. I was teary eyed for hours after this as we went home for the night.

I should note that New York is a very strange place right now. It’s quiet around town, but there are massive rescue efforts underway that are visible to anyone. On one day, we saw the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship now serving as a hotel for the firemen. It sits next to the USS Intrepid, a WWII aircraft carrier (which looks small next to the hospital ship). On one day, I saw a convoy of massive digging equipment make its way through Times Square. With a police escort, nearly 15 huge semi-trucks made their way down the road with giant digging equipment on the flatbeds. The license plates Ire from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and Andrew said they were likely from the iron mines of the Minnesota. Volunteers had driven them all the way from the Midwest to New York, with flags and yellow ribbons tied to their trucks.

Volunteers are everywhere in town. You see fire trucks from Boston, police from New Hampshire, National Guard units from all over New York. They actually had to ask people to stop coming because they simply had too much help.

Saturday started with a visit to Engine 31, down around Times Square and across the street from St. Francis of Assissi Monestary. Father Judge was the fire department Chaplain who lived with the friars and rode with Engine 31 to the fires. His story was incredibly tragic.

One of the first firemen to die at the WTC was a young man rushing into the building. A woman who had jumped from the 100th floor landed on the firemen, and Father Judge and the Deputy Fire Chief went to his aid. Seeing that the stricken fireman had already died, the priest took off his helmet to administer last rites. That was when he, and the Deputy Chief were hit by fallen debris and killed.

Fireman grabbed Father Judge’s body and carried him to a nearby church. They then, very delicately, laid his body on the altar of the church and went back to deal with the wounded. After the building collapsed, the men of Engine 31 grabbed Father Judge’s body and took him back to their station where he would be safe, placing him in their bunk and inviting the priests from across the street come over to pray. The reverence they showed to Father Judge was something I will always remember when I think about this tragedy.

I should also note that Engine 31 lost six firemen. We left flowers at this station as well, and then decided to head to the crime scene.

New York has been cut into two by the police and I was unable to get farther south than Canal Street, a street that runs East-West through city and bisects Chinatown. We ate lunch in Chinatown (which was busy, but also kind of quiet) and then walked down Canal Street East to West. We could see the smoke from this location (but you can see the smoke from nearly everywhere in the city). However, when I got to Church Street, the street that runs next to WTC Building 4 and 5, I could actually see some of the wreckage of the WTC Towers (buildings 1&2). About 50 feet of the building was sitting in middle of the street, nearly a block from the tower's base, and giant cranes were everywhere around the debris trying to rescue those who are still missing. It was too sad to stay and watch, so I decided to head home for the night.

On Sunday, I visited a bagel place on the East side, but when I came out I found yet another fire station and yet another memorial. This station lost its ladder and the battalion chief car that was stationed there. A total of nine firemen were missing from this station.

I went to visit his friend Michael who has a new baby. The baby was out, but I ended up walking around the upper West Side, visiting our final fire station of the weekend at 78th and Broadway. They lost seven men in the battle, and their fire truck was also destroyed.

Fire trucks from 48th, 58th, 52nd, and 78th streets in Manhattan responded to the fire (about three miles away). All of these stations lost men and equipment, despite being far away from the WTC. The initial response was 400 firemen, but now some 300 are missing. These were the men who were going up the stairs while civilians were fleeing downwards. Many survivors told how they applauded these young brave firemen on their way up to the flames. The scope of this disaster is massive, and the debris covered many blocks killing many men and women.

In talking with friends and "friends of friends" these last few days, I've heard many horrible stories. Most gruesome is the accounts of people jumping out of the building to escape the flames. One photograph is of a couple, a man and a woman, jumping hand in hand. Husband and wife, boss and secretary, or just two strangers who didn't want to die alone...I'll never know.

But as horrible as the people falling from the sky is to see, you have to remember that it also saved lives. A number of people who had evacuated from the building, prior to the collapse, were milling about at the base of the WTC and in the blocks surrounding (think about it, what did you do during your last fire drill? -- Stand across the street). It wasn't until they saw the bodies of the falling victims that they realized "this is really bad" and started to walk or run away from the building. A "friend of a friend" was in this crowd of several thousand people and mentioned they all started to flee when they saw the first bodies coming flying down. This action saved their lives, for when the building collapsed, the streets and blocks where they were standing were covered in debris, killing anyone who remained.

So here it is Sunday night and I’ve been trying to “go on” with life. They say the best way to fight terrorism is to work hard and get on with life. Maybe this letter is part of that process.

I want you all to know that I appreciate your calls and e-mails. It’s nice to know that you care and I take comfort in knowing you are concerned. I hope you are all remembering the missing in your thoughts and prayers.


Reflections of Sept. 11
The personal account of Sept. 11th, 2001 by a suburban New York couple. They had a distant view of the World Trade Center disaster and visited the site just days later.

We saw the second plane hit on TV. It happened only a few miles from us. We felt a need to see it, to validate reality.

We went to City Island, a section of the Bronx due northeast of the World Trade Center with a direct view of the distant towers. Ed, Karen and I spent the five-minute drive listening to the radio, in shock over what was happening to our city, and later the world.

There were about a half-dozen of us watching both towers burn. A guy next to us was watching the news on a portable TV. As we are shaking our heads, he yells out, "they hit the Pentagon," and a minute later he screams warnings of nuclear warfare before running off. Ed waves his hand in dismissal, while Karen and I look at each other, feeling scared and very vulnerable, believing a nuclear attack is possible.

We sat on a park bench watching and crying, until we had enough. After walking to the car, we turned to look at the towers again and all we saw was a huge cloud of white smoke. We got into the car and turned on the radio to hear that the first tower had collapsed. We pulled into a lot and watched as the smoke spread. Karen felt ill. We all felt ill.

Over the next few days, Ed stayed glued to the TV and read every paper from cover to cover. Lots of friends called to see if we were OK and to talk. Everyone needed to talk. I became frightened. Didn't want to travel. Didn't want to do much of anything. Just wanted to stay home.

We were very lucky -- no direct losses from such horrific acts potentially affecting friends and family in New York, D.C. and Boston.

About a week later, we started to come out of it and on day 10, we went to New York City for the first time after September 11. As we drove down the FDR Drive, we saw the first signs of additional security -- a checkpoint at the UN, Coast Guard Boats in the East River, a motorcade of important officials.

We parked at Union Square, met our friend Diane and took the subway downtown to Fulton Street.

We got off the subway and were hit with an acrid smell of burning rubber, which became unnoticeable after the first 15 minutes. The day was warm and hazy and the air was thick. We started to walk up to Broadway. The crowds were heavy, curious, sad, shocked and tearful. Many people wore respirator masks, some covered their mouths with cloth.

Police lined the street, keeping pedestrian traffic moving. They were understanding but firm, asking people to take their pictures and move on. There was a spot across from One Liberty Plaza where people could stand and look toward the remains of the Trade Center. Many stood and stared. Others took pictures. Some were describing the scene into cell phones. Strangers struck up conversations, sharing their stories with one another.

We stayed there for a while, watching the recovery process. Huge cranes, many stories high, carrying cages of people into the wreckage, one dump truck after another taking debris away, other machines tearing away at the rubble, pulling steel apart from a burned-out building.

We moved on, heading south on Broadway. Passing Trinity Church, we noticed how clean the building was and were amazed at the cleanup of the cemetery. Days before, it was covered with white ash and paper.

The buildings along lower Broadway appeared undamaged, but the humming of emergency generators and the sight of people carrying office papers and belongings out of offices in paper bags was a reminder of how business was not as usual. We passed the Bull at the bottom of Broadway. It was adorned with American flags and an FBI wanted poster of Bin Laden was taped to its ass.

We continued to walk toward Battery Park, where the National Guard was camped out. It was strange to see camouflaged vehicles parked all over. We walked back up Broadway, down toward Federal Hall and the Stock Exchange. The sight of George Washington guarded by uniformed officers and a police dog was striking. We were briefly interviewed by a couple of writers from a Cambridge, Mass., paper, here for the day to get a story.

It was time for a break, so we decided to follow the mayor's request to patronize a local business and went to an area pub for much-needed refreshment. We talked with our waitress, the owner's wife, who told us that many of the businesses have not returned, but their customers have been calling to make sure they were OK and coming in. By 6 p.m., the bar was packed and it was time for us to move on.

The sun was setting now. Broadway was much quieter. The police backed off of moving people off the sidewalks and we were able to lean against a rail and watch. The feeling was little different, as was the view. The sun's reflection in the building windows, coupled with the lighting at the site, gave things a much different perspective. Then something unexpected: Coming out from behind the fences of the site, we saw a police motorcycle procession. It was followed by a red golf cart, with a fireman sitting in the front seat, helmet held over his chest, and a corpse draped in a flag behind him. Heads bowed. No pictures were taken.

We put our arms around each other. We needed comfort.

The subway back uptown was crowded. New Yorkers were out on a Friday night. Union Square was packed, but in a strange way it was comforting. Maybe it was the memorials going on, watching people gather to talk and pray. Maybe it was the calming effect of the candles. Maybe it was listening to drums and antiwar chants that brought me back to the '70s. Maybe it was putting a fingerprint on a canvas that would become a piece of art.

Now hungry, we felt compelled to eat in the city. So we went a restaurant, which under normal circumstances would have been very difficult to get into on a Friday night, and were seated right away. The hostess told us what a bad night they were having. The music was canceled. Still, we had a great meal. N.Y. still knows how to cook.

As we drove up the West side, we noted how strange it all felt -- here we were leaving the city as we do many times a month, just north of a devastating act that left the most number of Americans dead on our soil in our country's history. Yet where we were, at that moment in time, it seemed otherwise a typical night in N.Y. Very surreal.


Read More stories by visiting the links below:

* NOVA | Building on Ground Zero | A Survivor's Story | PBS

* The Miracle Survivors

* 9/11 Survivor Shares Survival Story


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